Unpicking the Culture of Menstrual Shame

At The Real Period Project, our vision is a world where periods are taught as part of the whole menstrual cycle and it is safe to talk about and experience menstruation whatever your age, gender or location.

But the Culture of Menstrual Shame keeps periods hidden. It is a toxic combination of shame, secrecy and the imperative to conceal all traces of menstrual life.

Girls dread their periods starting and few people are ever taught about how the menstrual cycle really works, or how they can track their own.

The stigma surrounding menstruation goes back a long way. Menstrual shame has roots that run deep:

  • There have beliefs throughout history and across all continents implying that menstruation (that’s having your period) is dirty or unclean. 
  • There is a massive under representation of female physiology in medical research and understanding.
  • Girls are commonly separated from boys to have “the period talk”, giving the message that periods need to be kept hidden away, and are nothing to do with boys. 
  • Names for products implying periods are dirty, like menstrual hygiene, or sanitary products, sani-pads. Implying periods are unsanitary. Language is powerful.
  • Marketing campaigns for disposable products often rely on messages that imply you have to keep periods hidden and secret, like silent wrappers and products called ‘Whisper’. (Chella Quint’s Lifting The Lidfilm demonstrates this well)
  • Until very recently, all adverts for pads used blue liquid to demonstrate the pad’s absorbency. Some young people still today think that period blood is blue. One pad manufacturer has actually started using red liquid, and it’s still found to be pretty shocking. 
  • We can watch blood being spilled from violence all over TV and in films, but period blood has been taboo, seen as disgusting and shocking.
Credit: Blake List

Whilst there is evidently still much work to be done, and providing products in schools is only addressing part of the problem, it is at least a good start and proof that our politicians are listening. The story internationally varies country to country. Whilst access to products may be an issue for some here, access to clean water, safe toilets and washing facilities are much more pressing issues for many millions of people experiencing periods worldwide. We may just be waking up to the realities of period poverty here in the UK, but internationally it has been, and continues to be, a serious issue for a very long time.

A lot has been done in recent years around addressing menstrual stigma, but we can’t undo so many years of oppression, concealment and shame in such a relatively short space of time. Such deeply ingrained beliefs and practices are not unpicked in a few short years. It is the steady stream over years, of empowering messages, educational resources and menstrual activism and advocacy that will slowly, eventually, eradicate Menstrual Shame.

In all the education resources we are involved in at The Real Period Project, we always consider the need to address the needs of young people now, whilst the Culture of Menstrual Shame is still so strong, and the needs of young people in the future when – hopefully – enough generations of their older peers will have paved the way for a different relationship with menstruation. No matter how much good work we might do in one school, or with one class, or one young person, the influence of society’s still overwhelmingly negative attitudes are just as strong as the empowering messages we might provide. It is multi layered and long term work.

There is good news. We welcome the inclusion of menstrual education into the new SRE and RE guidance due to come into effect in 2020, although we’d love to see more detail on menstrual wellbeing included. Schools would benefit from clearer guidance on what to teach so that all their pupils understand what the menstrual cycle is about, and how anyone who experiences periods can look after themselves best. And this, amongst other things and alongside many other great people in the field, is what we’re working on.There are already lots of great (and often free) resources for schools to use. We worked with Hey Girls last year to write their educational materials which are available from their website as a free download. They are a not for profit company and their values are positive and inclusive. The Girl Guides have been doing great work addressing period poverty and providing empowering education about periods, and City to Sea have a great program of lesson plans tackling menstrual shame that will soon be made widely available. Our very own lesson plans for primary schools will soon be here on our website as a free download, and Chella Quint is still doing wonderful work helping people become more #periodpositive.

Our mission is to promote wellbeing through accessible and sustainable menstrual cycle education. We teach about periods in context of the whole cycle, acknowledging all the ups and downs of this hormonal ride.

And we want everyone to be included in the conversation, so that it becomes as normal and acceptable for someone to talk about how their menstrual cycle affects them (or their friend/partner/sibling/child) as it is to talk about how they feel after a good or bad night’s sleep, or how being hungry or thirsty affects their mood or energy.

The menstrual cycle is a normal, natural body function of anyone with a working uterus and ovaries. There’s nothing inherently shameful, disgusting or even different about this cycle, or about menstruation itself.

But the Culture of Menstrual Shame makes it seem shameful and disgusting, and makes it awkward and embarrassing to talk about.  

So let’s stop demonising periods and the menstrual cycle. Let’s start talking instead about Menstrual Shame, and the culture that makes everything to do with this bodily function that affects half the population of the planet for many years of their lives something to hide and be ashamed of. Let’s start unpicking the roots of Menstrual Shame, and in its place bring real understanding and appreciation of this amazing process that does no less than enable the continuation of our species.

Our work is rooted in dismantling the Culture of Menstrual Shame, because we want a world where anyone can talk about menstruation, any time, anywhere.